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Lebanonwire, December 5, 2003

The Daily Star

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Tattooing: a new women’s fashion rage?
Petite designs are multiplying, but so are bolder, more visible statements of personal identity

Daryl Champion
Special to The Daily Star

Summertime in Beirut. The mercury hovers in the high 30s and the humidity resembles that of a rainforest.
A flash of color, an image, floats through the delirium. It’s a woman, yes, but the image, the color, is that of a small butterfly, or perhaps a rose, emblazoned on a shoulder or an ankle.
Many Lebanese men are tattooed ­ this is not necessarily news, but what is more surprising is the number of women who are now opting to express themselves with permanent tattoos.
Judging from what can be seen in day-to-day life in Lebanon and from talking with Beirut’s tattoo artists, Lebanese women are embracing contemporary body art in ever-increasing numbers.
The story does not end there: Women are not only being tattooed, they are also doing the tattooing.
While it is reported on the alternative lifestyle circuit that a number of women are practicing contemporary body tattooing in Lebanon, there is only one such professional body artist.
Micheline Challita has been running her tattooing and body piercing business, Frimousse, from her Awkar studio since 1993. It is a studio with a difference ­ a well-presented shop front that is conservative but tasteful in a way designed to appeal more to a female and conventional clientele.
The premises, in fact, resemble a clinic more than a tattoo studio, testimony perhaps to the influence of her husband, a gynecologist, and her parallel beautician’s business.
Challita says being a beautician “is not my style,” although she admits to an attraction to laser hair removal and electric depilation ­ the modern technologies of permanent hair removal ­ “Yes, wow! It’s hyper.”
From this interest she moved into permanent cosmetic tattooing, and then her love of drawing and painting led her to body tattooing, which she says she learnt in Germany and has been practicing now for around 12 years.
She does not do extensive tattooing, preferring small designs more in keeping with the demand of women clients even though men comprise 50 percent of her tattooing clientele.
Challita tattooed her eldest daughter, now 20, when she was 16 years of age: she had a small bird on her shoulder. But the artist says she would not allow her younger daughter, now 16, to be tattooed; however, when she turns 18, “she is free.”
While waiting to interview Challita, a 16-year old girl flicked through the Frimousse catalogue to choose a tattoo that would go above her ankle. The girl was accompanied by her mother, reinforcing the impression that Frimousse is almost a family practice.
Challita is not the only tattoo artist doing good business with women.
Hady Beydoun of Skin Deep in Jal al-Dib has had some unusual commissions from his women clients.
He has, for example, tattooed four Saudi princesses and some of their (female) staff on different occasions, one of them more than once. He has rendered these services in Beirut, but also in Cairo and Riyadh ­ in the latter two locations on invitation with all expenses paid. Such work, of course, is carried out with discretion.
Beydoun says his clients are equally male and female, but that perceptions of beauty are a greater motivating factor in a woman wanting to be tattooed. Because of this, he says, citing the case of one recent female client ­ a lawyer who had a flower tattooed on her forearm ­ women are becoming more willing to display their tattoos.
He observes while men have physically bigger tattoos than women, “maybe only 5 percent of tattooed people in Lebanon have extensive tattooing,” such as an entire arm or back. He says he knows “one or two women who have eight or nine tattoos, but still they are small ones and spread over the body.”
Surveying Beirut’s other contemporary body artists reveals some interesting insights into the latest trends among Lebanese women.
Jean-Claude Zraiee of American Body Art in Bourj Hammoud, for example, has more female clients than male ones, but mostly for piercing. Men and women come to him in roughly equal numbers for tattooing.
Zraiee says eyebrow and lip liner tattooing is popular with women, but that body tattoos are becoming more popular. Echoing Beydoun, he says women’s body tattoos are mostly small but are becoming larger and more visible ­ another sign of changing attitudes toward tattooing.
Albertino Feghaly of Tattoo Bikers in New Jdeideh also reports a 50-50 split between his male and female clients. However, Feghaly also teaches cosmetic facial tattooing, and he says 75 percent of his students are women.
Fadi Ghossein, who, on the other hand, operates a small-scale mobile tattooing business, Tattoo Style, says most of his clients are women who have their eyebrows and lip outline tattooed “so they don’t have to worry about applying makeup every day.”
He also does a range of small tattoos, which he thinks are particularly suitable for women. He says he does not like doing full-body work, and he doesn’t like doing more than four individual tattoos for any one client.
The tattooing experience of one Lebanese woman, Melina, is informing. She has two tattoos, both executed by Feghaly. Her first, a relatively large-scale piece, is a flower running up her left flank. The second is a pattern on the small of her back.
“I see (tattoo) design as an elegant thing ­ a certain expression of who you are,” she says.
“Not just the design, but where it is on the body ­ the whole process of selecting a design, working on it, working out where to locate it on the body, the pain: it is unique.”
Melina emphasizes location as expression: “If a tattoo is on the shoulder, you want it to be seen; on the lower back, it’s more personal.”
She equates elegance with discretion, saying the paradox of Lebanon is that because tattooing is not generally accepted here, tattoos tend to be more discreet and, as a result, more elegant.
Her appreciation of the art, however, was diminished during a recent trip to Canada, where she thought tattooing “was done in overkill.” To her mind, an entire arm covered in tattoos was a “vulgar” sight.
“We’re so desperate to grab that new, innovative thing because everything’s already been discovered ­ but then it’s picked up by the many and it becomes trashy. That’s how it was for me with tattoos in Canada ­ trashy.”
“I don’t believe in going to extremes, in anything,” she says emphatically.
On the attitude of her parents toward her tattoos, Melina says her mother “is okay about it, she knew about it from the first, but my father would probably disagree with it,” adding that most of her tattooed female friends have had their tattoos in places where their parents cannot see them.
“This is very, very, very common in Lebanese families,” she explains, before quipping, “My sister got one (a tattoo) too.”
This predicament is not limited to women.
One of Beydoun’s heavily tattooed clients, Majed, says his mother knows of his tattoos and does not disapprove, but that his father is not aware of his son’s passion for permanent body art.
Majed shrugs: “It’s my body.”
Besides permanent tattoos, the Middle Eastern tradition of temporary henna tattooing is very popular with women and is good business for body artists. For some, like Ghossein, it constitutes the bulk of their work.
Henna is a reddish dyestuff prepared from the dried and ground leaves of the henna shrub. The dye is applied to the skin with a brush, and the resulting tattoos last 15 to 20 days.
Thus has tattooing arrived for women in Lebanon, in all its diversity and with all its possibilities of statement and self-expression.
Tattooing was an early form of globalization ­ this is truer today than ever. It is a world in which women are certainly a part, and one in which perhaps, due to the art form’s generally masculine image, they are more equal than men.

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